USTOA on Bing Travel

Published Mar 26, 2012 12:00AM

Don't Break the Bank on Spring Break

Yes, you can still afford to take a trip this spring — just keep these tips in mind before you book. 

 By Pauline Frommer

In the economic sphere, “irrational exuberance” is out, supplanted by a cautious optimism. We’re not out of the woods yet, especially in some regions of the United States. But many Americans are going back to their pre-recessionary habits, and that includes taking a spring-break vacation.

It likely won’t be an exorbitant holiday. “Value continues to rule as king,” says Terry Dale, president of the United States Tour Operators Association. “Even though we’re seeing an uptick in consumer confidence, there’s also been an uptick in gas prices, which translates to a surge in grocery prices. So value is a continuing trend. People want to spend less when they can.”

Dale is on the nose about the increase in gas prices. According to AAA, the average cost of gas was $2.80 per gallon in the spring of 2010 and $3.47 in 2011. As I write this, the national average is hovering at $3.80; stations in some states are charging more than $4 a gallon.

The rising cost of fuel affects not only automobile travel but also air prices. (Read the Fareologist's Spring Break Forecast.) “The news is kinda rough,” says Brian Ek of Priceline. “Average airfares for spring break are up 5 percent over last spring. That doesn’t sound like much, but last year was one of the highest years ever for spring break.”

The calendar is another enemy of the would-be budget traveler this year. Most public schools in the U.S. hold spring break the week before Easter. Since that falls on April 8 this year, the travel season is far more compressed than last year, when Easter was April 24. With more people than ever trying to vacation at the same time, deals to certain spring-break hot spots have been harder to snag. But that doesn’t mean the savings aren’t out there. Here are three things to keep in mind as you plan your spring vacation.

High-seas savings

“There are screaming bargains on cruises right now,” Ek says. Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor of Cruise Critic, concurs. “We’re certainly seeing more vacancies this year than last,” she says.

The deals, however, don’t have to do with the negative publicity surrounding the Costa Concordia disaster, Brown says, but more to do with the mood in the country last fall. “You have to remember that the people booking first- and second-quarter 2012 sailings did so back in the fall when things were very tight and the economic outlook gloomy,” she says.

Whatever the reason, deals are available for those who look. “I recently saw seven nights on Holland America’s New Amsterdam for just $449! That’s a recession-era deal — it’s a brand-new ship,” Brown says. “It’s sailing the western Caribbean, which is part of the reason. The western Caribbean isn’t as expensive as the eastern Caribbean and the ports aren’t as interesting.”

Prices have also tumbled for those sailing through the Mediterranean and across the pond. “If you don’t mind staring out at the sea for days at a time, trans-Atlantic cruises are a really great value this spring,” says Jaime Freedman, North American publisher of the bargain site TravelZoo. On an April sailing of Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas, to give one example, prices have dropped to as little as $33 a day for the 15-night jaunt from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Civitavecchia, a port just northwest of Rome. “And it’s a great way to get to Europe for a vacation there, at a time when trans-Atlantic airfares are high.” Freedman says.

But don’t expect a party-hearty experience on board. “Families cruise en mass over the spring holidays,” notes Brown. “It’s ‘goodbye Love Boat,’ at least for a couple for weeks.”

Park holidays

“We’re hearing from a number of our members that national park vacations are particularly popular this year,” Dale says. Though official numbers aren’t released until six weeks after the season, some anecdotal evidence supports that point of view, says Jeffrey Olsen, a public affairs officer for the National Park Service.

“People have been flocking to a number of our parks in the past few weeks. Which ones? Any place where you walk into a hardware store and you don’t find a snow shovel,” Olsen says. “That includes the Florida parks, desert parks in Arizona, New Mexico and California. And this year, Yosemite has gotten much less snow and more winter and spring visitors.”

Choose cheaper destinationsOlsen further notes that a growing number of volunteer vacation options in the parks have been drawing visitors, mostly in the summer but increasingly in spring as well. Volunteers fill a number of positions in the parks. At Hot Springs National Park, they help with guest services; at Mount Rainier National Park, the volunteers are put to work maintaining the trails. These are just two of the options that volunteers have had this spring.

Interestingly, the less expensive destinations this year are spread evenly between the classic spring-break spots and some less usual choices. “Florida is a really good pick this year, with airfares down as much as 8 percent from last year,” Ek says, “in particular, flights to Orlando, Miami and Tampa.

“Flying into the northeast from around the country has also yielded some solid deals recently, most particularly to Boston, Philly and New York City,” he adds.

Looking at the hotels, Freedman says bargains have been popping up to the Caribbean, perhaps because temperate weather in the United States has tamped down enthusiasm for far-flung tropical destinations. “Caribbean resorts need to distinguish themselves from the pack,” she says. “This year they’re doing it with deals. We saw the Four Seasons Nevis for $250, a discount of 60 percent off the January and February rates. And in Mexico, Apple Vacations has had some great deals for the Now Resorts, with a lead price of $999 for nonstop air from Dallas, seven nights inclusive of all meals and drinks, and land transfers.”

A final budget-wise destination? The beachy havens of the Carolinas. “Hilton Head and Myrtle Beach have been cut-rate recently,” Freedman says. ”I’m talking $49 oceanfront resorts and two-bedroom condos for 50 percent off. You can play golf year-round there, or even go swimming. It’s been in the high 70s lately thanks to the weird weather patterns we’ve been seeing.”

As in other seasons, travelers can always save money by heading to the places others aren’t. Freedman says that though there hasn’t been much snow of late, there have been deals at the ski towns of Vermont, Colorado and Utah. A similar situation exists for packages to Japan, which is still suffering a slump since its earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear problems scared visitors away. 


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